Blind men, beating drums

The blind men are out.

They are beating the drums.

They heard rustling in the forest.

They think they heard quail, and are trying to beat them out.

They’ve forgotten that other creatures live in the forest.

They don’t know that the hyenas move to the drums

and the elephants do as well.

Will they flush the quail?  Or be trampled by the elephants?

Or will they just stop drumming?


I have heard so much in the past few days about what should be the reaction to the attacks in Paris.  The beat of war drums has come out again.  It is, clearly, the easiest and most natural reaction, driven by the sympathetic nervous system.  Struck by an enemy, the response is to strike back, especially when th e enemy seems like a rabid animal, possessed of an evil jinn.  I get that.  I feel that in a visceral part of me too.

I’m contrasting  those thoughts of mine with what may be my favorite quote by George Santayana “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” For so many reasons this comes to mind

Once again we seem poised to enter a conflict where we do not know our enemy.  Sun Tzu said ” If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

While I might question whether we know ourselves, it is abundantly clear that we don’t know the enemy.  We didn’t when the British Empire invaded Afghanistan in the 1870’s, when Allenby fought the Turks in World War I, when America nearly drowned in the Southeast Asia quagmire.  And we don’t know the enemy now either.  We view the enemy and the battle through Western eyes, when the enemy isn’t western and their strategy is more tribal than military.  We view the strategy and techniques through high-tech eyes, when the enemy is primitive and no-tech.  Can economic sanctions and high level bombing destroy an enemy who embraces and revels in the life and theology of ancient days?

The call from some quarters is to put boots on the ground.  The rationale for doing that is likely sound, since airpower alone will not defeat the radical militants that have risen up.  But once we put troops on the ground….what are we going to do?   How do we leave?  On a helicopter from the roof of an embassy?  In front of a banner that hollowly proclaims Mission Accomplished when it’s not?  We entered Korea with no thought of how we would leave, entered Vietnam with no thought, entered Iraq with no thought, entered Afghanistan with no thought on departure.  Shouldn’t we have at least a clue of how to define success and victory?  Do we really think we can subjugate the area and make it western when it never has been and never will be?

If we put the troops on the ground, has there been any thought of the ripples of that action with other nations?  We found in Korea that there was a line that brought a bigger conflict when China entered.  There is a nontrivial power in the Mid-east that is unlike any other….the Persian, Muslim, Sunni nation of Iran.  Going into their proxy, going into their sphere of influence might weaken them, or it might cause them to deploy militarily, if not against us then perhaps against Israel.   The consequences of an Iranian engagement, in terms of military, economic and political outcomes, are massive.  Much like the end strategy, we need to consider that elephant before listening to the drums.

It seems that we are always fighting the last war, never the next one.  We enter with 20/20 hindsight, using the techniques and skills from the last war instead of seeing what this war will require.  When do we realize that one size doesn’t fit all, that in fact one size fits….one.  Yes, airpower worked somewhat well in Bosnia against military targets, worked very well in Desert Storm against a standing army.  But it’s not worked so well in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Libya, or Yemen against dispersed, low-grade targets.  How well will it work against a primitive, barbaric adversary?

It may be that Anonymous has a better game plan in their cyber attack.  At least it’s a plan that seems more to fit an aspect of the enemy.  The growth of ISIS has not been through military conquest, although some of that has occurred, but by enticing and luring the disenfranchised and marginalized societies through social media.  Antiques are pawned to provide money, using social media.  Oil is sold using social media contacts.  So when do we shut down their access to internet?  When do we close the wells….or take them over?

We have ignored the atrocities of Syria for four years.  We have ignored the bombings in Iraq, in Libya,  the civil war in Yemen, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict, Boko Haram.  The bombs that went off in Beirut killing scores the day before Paris…..that no one in the West even noticed.

The drum beats of war continue to sound.  Are we flushing quail that we will consume, or elephants that will trample us?

Not a simple question.  Not an easy question.  But we need to answer it before, rather than after.

 paris peace sign
Paris peace sign by Jean Jullien

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